June 12, 2019

Beyond Recycling: Toward Zero Waste

There is a reason recycling is the most promoted and well known of the many environmental Rs. It does not affect consumption. Recycling is system friendly.

We can never talk seriously about anything that will reduce consumption. Never. Even if it means saving the planet. That is why they only pay lip service to the other Rs: refuse, reduce, repair, and reuse - these will all reduce consumption.

Rethink is my favourite rebel R that gets little to no fanfare in places where ConsumerThink is the only state sanctioned mindset. 

Billions of dollars are spent every year to make sure we think the right way, and buy the right things. And then you use recycling as a (system friendly) way to help consumers feel like they are doing something meaningful - saving the environment!

Considering the dire straights we find ourselves in, I have to think we are beyond (for the time being) recycling. We have to rethink our whole way of life. 

The current system is set up for a liner waste stream - crap in, crap out. Do more of that every year, or the economy will collapse. We know continuing this will eventually collapse planetary systems, but they don't want us to stop. 

Never mind the planet, what will happen to profits?

Recycling is not enough in a system that requires more resource extraction, production, and consumption than the year before in order to function. 

Along with infinite growth comes infinite waste. Both are choking the life out of our planet, and are currently washing up on the beaches of the collective consciousness.   

Our economies never bothered to make themselves into nature-imitating circular, closed loop systems, and this has been their undoing. The linear waste stream leads to collapse if followed to the end.

At this stage it makes more sense to move some of the more unloved Rs to the forefront of our consumer craniums. A zero waste world is possible.

However, we currently don't have a closed loop in which recycling would be an integral part. Far from it. 

“The smallest loops also create the highest social benefits because they are labour intensive. They use very few material and energy resources, and as they are decentralized, they benefit regional economies by providing local employment.”
- Walter Stahel

In recent years, many of the nations where we used to send our (dirty) recycling materials to be reprocessed far away by low wage labour, are saying "NO" to further imports of the results of our prodigious consumption habits.

In Canada's case, the nations are sending several of the containers of recycling/rubbish back to Canada so we can, perhaps, deal with our own stuff right here where it was generated.

Until we have a zero waste system where no waste is produced, I will continue recycling while concentrating on the other Rs that are most likely to lead to a lower consumption lifestyle, and eventually, a complete system change. 

A closed loop system where recycling is a common sense and seamless part of waste free living, is where we want to get. The other R's are the way to get there.

Rethink, Refuse, Reduce, Repair, Reuse. And then Recycle. 


  1. We had an election for city councilman. I received a postcard from a candidate. In the exact same day I received a mailing opposing him. "lf you vote for him your taxes will go up and we will have mandatory recycling." This happened twice! He did get elected, though. Even recycling has its barriers.

    1. Imagine if corporations and the rich paid their fair share of taxes. The world would be a different, more equitable place. Inequality is NOT inevitable. I wonder how the right is planning on paying for things if taxes are so evil? Taxes are how we collectively build strong societies, but some are cheating and taking more than their fair share.

  2. Things need to change in governments and corporations. It has to be system wide. I can do my part, but nothing will ever really change until the way the economy is run changes. It frightens me to think that the only way that is ever going to happen is for some big disaster to force a change.

    1. Anonymous6/14/2019

      Hi Marla,

      I completely agree we need systemic change. For my part, I spend some time every week writing to companies asking them to change their packaging or lose my dollars. We have to tackle the problem at the source. I could certainly do even better than I do, there are some foods etc... I don't want to give up - eg soy milk in my tea! I am heartened to find many companies now actually write back, whereas in the past letters often went unanswered. Hopefully this signifies that public pressure is building to allow us to make better choices. As I tell my kids, when I was growing up the milk came in glass that was reused and the bread was left on the doorstep with a thin slip of paper wrapped around it. None of us got food poisoning! It worked well then and it can work well again.


    2. Marla,

      I do believe that it will take some big turds hitting the fan before people wake up to reality. But it is not just fake news these days, it is fake everything. They try to distract the masses, and it is working.


      That is wonderful that you write to companies on a regular basis. Speaking out works, and speaking out in large numbers works better.

      Back to the future we go. We discarded many things that worked in the name of profit and convenience. But as you say, they will work once again.

  3. I'm on board with all the R's and recycling being the last the way you list them. I fully agree that recycling is tied into the system. For one thing it allows people to buy with less guilt or thought about the environment because, hey I can recycle it! In so many words it's marketed to people that way.

    Recycling has been hyped up as helping the environment, but the environmental cost to recycle is enormous in terms of fossil fuel use and use of water, chemicals, etc. Not to mention all the rocks and minerals that have to be mined in order to build recycling machinery, etc, etc, etc. I know everyone here knows all this.

    The reason local governments want people to recycle has zero to do with saving the environment and everything to do with saving money. It's more expensive to send trash to the landfill than it is to recycle. Recycling contractors actually pay a few pennies for tons of materials to be recycled. So the government wants recycling because it's a cheaper way to deal with trash.

    Recycling is very convoluted. Just because a container has a triangle with a number inside it does NOT mean it's recyclable. Not here anyway. They are now only accepting lower numbers inside the triangle, 1,2 and 3.

    Around here they keep reducing the type of items they will accept for recycling. For instance they stopped accepting glass. They said it breaks in the mixed items to be recycled. Then tiny pieces of glass get mixed into the paper that's recycled making it virtually useless. We spent decades educating people to recycle glass and anything with a triangle with a number. Now a lot of time and money is being put into training people to stop putting glass and some of the triangle marked items in their recycling bins. And if you do put glass etc in your recycling bin, they say it's contaiminated and send the whole truck-full to the landfill. Sorting is mostly a myth. Makes me batshit crazy.

    I'm probably not going to be zero waste, but I aim high and feel I do better than average.
    Don't feel bad about other countries sending your rubbish back to Canada, they send ours back too!!

    1. Anonymous6/14/2019

      Hi Terri,

      here in Australia we have recently discovered that a lot of what we thought was being recycled was just being piled up in warehouses or sent to land fill. There is simply too much to recycle. Many people saw the TV program about it, so hopefully people start to understand that using less is the answer.


    2. Terri,

      Wow, glass is one of the most recyclable and useable things in the recycling bin. I think that sometimes it gets so complicated for the average person that they just quit in frustration.

      As Madeleine says, using less is the way to go. It is the only proactive step we can take, because as you pointed out, it takes energy to recycle things. And so much does end up in the landfill.

      I will not buy anything in the grocery store that is in hard shell plastic, and that Is a lot of stuff. I don't really need my watermelon cut into spears anyway. I can just buy a watermelon, which comes in its own biodegradable packageing, and cut it myself. No plastic required.

  4. We had that here too Madeleine. I used to sit on the city council's Green board and we were all shocked to learn that the contractor the city was selling recyclables to was sending all the glass and mixed recyclables that had glass in it to the landfill. The contractor had been doing that for years and the city didn't know it! If it has glass in it or anything they don't recycle, it is labeled "contaminated" and sent directly to the landfill.

    Also of note, no drink cups are recycled here. No matter if it has a triangle on it or not. If those are placed in your bin, same thing happens; labeled contaminated and the whole bin of items is sent to the landfill.

    I know Gregg. Not recycling glass is one of the craziest things I've heard of.

    It took decades to educate people to recycle. Now people have to be re-educated to not put certain very recyclable items like glass in their bins to be picked up. It twisted my mind up so bad I quit serving on the board. We can still recycle glass if it's separated at the county level, but one must load up the recyclables and drive several miles to a station to drop off the glass. It is not on the way to anything so no combining trips.

    It's all very Orwellian to me. Facts changed and crap information is re-sold to the public as factual. NBA is about the sanest place I visit. We are family here!

    1. These are indeed insane times. Our aim with our blog is to be an oasis of sanity where we can all meet and make our plans for the better world we know is possible. Thanks for being part of that, and encouraging us along the way.

  5. I'm so excited to see you do a post on zero waste! We have been increasing our zero waste living steadily over the last couple of years - we eat only a plant-based diet, buy unpackaged produce to freeze in reusable containers or cook with while fresh, purchase our beans and nuts, seeds and grains in bulk-bins using reused jars from previous purchases, have switched to using bars of soap and shampoo bars, and are working on perfecting our gardening skills (there's a lot to learn). Oh! And we are making do with what we have by mending our clothes and linens when needed as opposed to buying replacements as well as using only cloth for napkins/hankies/etc. It's been a wonderfully fun challenge as we keep reducing our waste. It's become a game - how low can we go? :D Hopefully, all the way to zero.


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